This is the transcript for my conference presentation at IWCA 2019.

Introduction [slides 1-2]

Welcome to “Art and Ableism: An Accessibility Analysis of Writing Center Pedagogy, Conferences, and Publications.” My title slide features a photo of a lion sculpture at my local art museum. Below the sculpture is a small sign that says, “please do not touch.”

I’m Jenelle Dembsey. I am an IRB Professional at Northcentral University and a co-coordinator of the Online Writing Centers Community.

If you’d like to follow along with me during this presentation, I have distributed printed copies of my session transcript. You can also download my transcript and PowerPoint from my website:

Art and Ableism [slides 3-14]

As discussed in the call for proposals, many have connected writing center work with art. In my view, though, it matters not whether we are artists or artisans, or whether our work is original or an imitation. Rather, the question should be: is our art accessible?

If you Google “making art accessible,” you’ll find broad and focused understandings of the word “accessibility.” This screenshot of Google search results shows a perfect example. The following two article titles appear side-by-side: “Making Art Accessible to the Masses” and “Making Art Accessible to the Disabled.”

“Accessibility for the masses” is a broad understanding of accessibility that focuses on reaching a larger audience. Examples include the use of social media for sharing artwork; traveling exhibits that transport art across the country; and presentations that bring art to the classroom (Lopez, 2017; Montero, 2019).

However, a broad view of accessibility usually does not recognize the differing needs or abilities of those in the audience. For example, do the social media posts provide image descriptions of the art? Are the traveling art exhibits wheelchair accessible? Or are the classroom presentations available in sign language? The absence of people considering these questions is why we need “accessibility for the disabled.” This focused view of accessibility considers those with disabilities specifically and actively works against ableism.

Ableism Defined [slides 9-14]

According to Lennard J. Davis (2018), ableism is “the insistence on being normal and the accompanying conscious or unconscious discrimination against disabled people. Ableism is like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination” (p. 5).

Jay Dolmage (2018) explains that in an ableist society, “barriers are created that impede the ability of disabled people to participate, live fully, join the public conversation, and determine their own lives” (p. 33).

Ableism is common in traditional artwork and art museums, with their “do-not-touch” policies and focus on visual experience. On the screen, an outdoor sign states “Please do not touch. Touching can harm the art” (Photo credit: Hollingworth, 2008). Such artwork is created and displayed under the assumption that seeing is “normal,” which excludes those with visual impairments from enjoying and participating in artwork.

Ableism also spreads false beliefs that “do-not-touch” signs exist only to preserve artwork. George Wurtzel, a blind woodworker and artisan, explains: “I have been told not to touch sculptures that were fully intended to be outside in the elements where the pigeons can shit on ‘em. I am absolutely convinced that I am less of an encumbrance to the long-term existence of that piece than pigeon shit is” (qtd. in Cantor Fine Art, 2016).

Even artwork designed for interaction can be ableist. Take the Vessel for instance (pictured on the screen), which is an outdoor, honeycomb-like structure in New York with 154 stairways (Sara, 2019). The structure’s purpose is “to encourage public interaction and bring people together, rather than creating an object purely to be looked at” (Crook, 2019). This next photo focuses on a group of protestors in front of the Vessel: some protestors are standing, and some are in wheelchairs. As Emily Sara (2019) explains: “The irony is that one fifth of the population is disabled and will be doing exactly that — looking from a distance, unable to interact with the artwork.”

Session Outline [slides 15-16]

Unfortunately, writing center work is not free from ableism either, as this presentation will discuss. I will organize this discussion around the 3 groups of people who can revise the writing center experience to be more accessible from a focused perspective. These 3 groups are:

  1. The teachers who influence future generations
  2. The artists or artisans who put work into the field
  3. The organizations that distribute this work within the field

1. Teachers [slides 17-32]

We will begin with teachers, who pass their values on to their students and thus impact the perspectives of future artists and artisans. In the art examples we just discussed, we can consider both the intention of the artist and the influence (or lack thereof) they’ve received from teachers and mentors.

Consider the Vessel (featured again on the screen), where the alienation of those with disabilities directly contradicts the mission for the piece. Would this structure have been designed differently if someone on the team had been taught to consider disabled people as an audience?

Writing Center Pedagogy [slides 19-28]

Similarly, how would writing center pedagogy have evolved if those teaching it had considered disabled students and tutors? My tutor training lacked discussion of disability and instead taught me the big 3 strategies in writing center pedagogy: read out loud, give indirect feedback, and avoid editing. In the 9 years since then, I’ve learned that these 3 strategies don’t always work. And yet, at every writing center conference, someone will fiercely defend these strategies as a catch-all, especially in arguments against asynchronous online consulting.

In idealizing these strategies and face-to-face contexts, our field is similar to the artists behind the Vessel: we contradict our own mission and values. We claim to value individualized instruction and student agency, while at the same time teaching our tutors a limited set of practices and contexts that dissociate learning from individuality, ability, and disability.

In neglecting to consider disabled students as an audience for our pedagogy, we fail to acknowledge the following:

  1. Reading out loud as a go-to strategy places value on verbal communication, the ability to hear, and the ability to recognize errors orally. However, students and tutors can be d/Deaf or hard of hearing, as well as visual communicators and visual learners. Thus, the plan for reading through a paper should result from negotiation, not habit (Babcock, 2008b; Yabe, 2018).
  2. Indirect feedback impacts culture and clarity. In Rebecca Day Babcock’s (2012) research, deaf students found indirect suggestions to be frustrating and unhelpful, because Deaf culture values directness, and “Students cannot be expected to know what they do not know” (p. 85). Research also shows that students prefer linguistically direct language over indirect language (Hewett, 2015; Peguesse, 2013).
  3. Anti-editing policies discriminate against students who can’t see grammatical errors on their own, regardless of their willingness to learn, yet will still be graded on it (Babcock, 2008a, 2012). Anti-editing policies also ignore the reality that editing is a visual teaching tool and that scholars and professionals learn from hands-on editing all the time (Rafoth, 2016; Shamoon & Burns, 1995).
  4. Face-to-face services, without adequate online alternatives, place a burden of physical presence on students and tutors. Consider that some students and tutors may navigate campuses in non-normative time frames; encounter inaccessible pathways and buildings on their way to the writing center; concentrate better in familiar or private locations; have difficulty leaving their homes on any given day; or just prefer an appointment through technology (Price, 2011). In addition, many arguments against asynchronous consulting assume that students should always be overworked. As a blogger for School.Differences puts it: “the assumption looms large that passion and dedication imply working 24/7 and being ready and able to ignore such basic needs as eating or sleeping” (sdankwa, 2015). Thus, denying asynchronous services because they might allow a student time to eat, relax, or sleep is academic ableism.

Now, some might argue that preferred pedagogy can be altered in special circumstances to accommodate students and tutors with disabilities. Accommodations, however, require disclosure. And disclosure requires one to identify as disabled, afford costly tests, and most importantly, relinquish their privacy (Dolmage, 2017; Kleinfield, 2018). I’d suggest listening to Kerri Rinaldi (2015): “What my disability is, quite frankly, is none of your business.” Writing center teachers need to be anti-ableist and refrain from establishing a pedagogy that necessitates making exceptions in the first place.

Tutor Training [slides 29-32]

To avoid implementing a “normal” way of doing things, writing center teachers need to introduce a range of strategies and encourage flexibility and creativity in tutor training.

The key is to discuss disability and accessibility as core concepts, rather than topics of interest; to teach “access-as-practice” (Price, 2011). For example, on the topic of agenda-setting, teachers can assign articles by Kerri Rinaldi (2015) and Manako Yabe (2018), who argue for negotiating tutoring strategies and communication preferences, from the perspective of deaf tutors. With these articles, teachers can discuss how students and tutors will have needs to be negotiated, while at the same time recognizing disability and disabled tutors.

Another idea is to teach tutors how to recognize barriers to accessibility and inclusion, which provides a lens for self-reflection. I suggest assigning Elizabeth Kleinfield’s (2018) article and pairing it with an inclusion analysis assignment for tutors to practice locating barriers in their writing center, larger institution, local community, or even local art museum.

Before choosing readings on disability, though, teachers should carefully consider how these readings will represent or affect students and tutors with disabilities. Avoid readings that describe disability with negative language, encourage tutors to diagnose students, or suggest that certain practices are only beneficial to specific disabilities or impairments (as discussed in Hitt, 2017; Price, 2011; Rinaldi, 2015). I’ve provided suggested readings at the end of my transcript.

2. Artists and Artisans [slides 33-41]

Discussing disability can later impact the scholarly work of writing center artists and artisans, as well as the audience(s) they imagine for this work.

Some artists, for example, are creating specifically for a blind audience by using sound, smell, and touch (Dupere, 2016). In the documentary “Please Touch the Art,” artist Andrew Myers discusses his experience using screws to create tactile art that is meant for touch:

Probably about 6 years ago, 5 years ago, I had created one of these screw pieces. And there was a blind man at a show that walked up to my booth. And someone was walking him around and describing the art to him. And I thought, “Well, you know, that’s not fair.” And I didn’t tell him what it was. And he walked up to it and put his hand on this piece and started feeling it. And all of a sudden, he got this huge smile on his face. (qtd. in Cantor Fine Art, 2016)

Writing center scholars have a similar responsibility to welcome, rather than exclude, disabled participants in our art, such as our articles, research studies, and conference presentations. So far, too many writing center articles have portrayed disability in negative and problematic ways, as though disabled people would never read it, as though writing center professionals can’t be disabled (e.g., Corrigan, 1997; Faerm, 1992; Hewett, 2000; McDonald, 2008; Mullin, 1994; Neff, 1994; Schmidt, Bunse, Dalton, Perry, & Rau, 2009; Schramm, 1991; Sisk, 2001).

Some examples of these problematic discussions include:

  • Generalizing about a specific disability after sessions with 1 disabled student
  • Applying a nondisabled lens to disabled students without providing their perspectives
  • Listing characteristics that can be used to diagnose students
  • Describing sessions with disabled students as something to be feared or frustrated by
  • Discussing disability without citing disability scholarship, or any scholarship at all

We need to be more responsible, and quite frankly, more respectful in our portrayals of disability and expect that disabled people will read our work. More primary research is needed to include disabled voices and challenge and disprove assumptions, rather than create new ones. This applies in all areas of research, not just research focused on disability. Researchers can design studies that are accessible to disabled participants as well as actively recruit disabled participants, such as through their local disability support centers.

When this research is later shared at conferences, presenters should expect that disabled tutors and professionals will attend. Presentation materials can be designed to account for verbal and visual communicators and learners. Some options include (but are not limited to):

  • Printing full written transcripts for attendees
  • Verbally describing images
  • Clarifying the beginning and ending of quotations
  • Choosing videos with edited closed captions
  • Putting materials online for download
  • Designing materials to be used by screenreaders (for assistance, see Microsoft Support articles and

Presenters and attendees can also be access advocates by visiting the Composing Access Project (2019) website.

3. Organizations [slides 42-60]

But responsibility can’t be placed only on individual artists and artisans. Organizations have a large role to play in the persistence of ableism and in the movements against it. For example, when art organizations and museums hang their “do-not-touch” signs and design their buildings and exhibits for nondisabled bodies, they reveal their intended audience.

I visited my local art museum recently, and I took this photo of a sign in their parking lot. The sign indicates that their front entrance is not accessible and disabled guests need to use a separate entrance on the other side of the building. As I continued walking, I was happy to take this next photo of a construction announcement that states “Coming soon: accessible front entrance.” In this example, an organization recognized its ableist design and took steps to correct it. Other art organizations are acknowledging disability by 3D printing historical paintings, hosting tactile tours, and displaying signs in large print and braille (Dupere, 2016; Urist, 2016).

Writing center organizations can take similar steps to recognize ableism and revise the design of our conferences and journals.

Conference Organizers [slides 46-47]

Currently, writing center conferences place the responsibility of access on disabled attendees (see Price, 2009). In other words, disabled attendees are expected to disclose disabilities and request accommodations during the registration process. At the same time, conference organizers are not expected to book wheelchair-accessible buildings and rooms, distribute screenreader-friendly conference materials, add edited closed captions to their videos, or provide transcripts or real-time transcriptions for keynote speakers (Price, 2011). Our state, regional, and international organizations design conferences around the expectation that most attendees will be nondisabled.

Journal Editors and Reviewers [slides 48-56]

The digital presence of our journals is similarly designed for nondisabled scholars. Our largest two journals prioritize aesthetics over accessibility in their reliance on PDF documents. While PDFs may allow for more pleasing branding and some may even believe they protect against plagiarism, they are often less accessible than Word documents and HTML webpages. Thus, PDFs are the writing center equivalent of the “do-not-touch” sign. Much of our scholarship is contained in scanned images of documents that don’t allow for selecting or searching text, which also means they can’t be read by screenreaders or similar technologies (Society for Disability Studies, 2016).

In the Writing Lab Newsletter’s public archive, 44% (165 out of 371) of the PDFs are scanned images without selectable or searchable text (WLN, 2019). These scanned PDFs also contain 46% (18 out of 39) of WLN’s articles on disability, meaning that scholars with disabilities cannot access scholarship on disability. This not only excludes those with disabilities from reading past scholarship but also excludes them from doing any research on the history or trends in our scholarship over time. The Writing Center Journal poses an additional barrier in that its closed access archive restricts information based on finances or institutional affiliation. Even the first 8 volumes of Praxis are available only through a program called ISSUU, which is not screenreader friendly (Demirgian, 2018; Praxis, 2019).

These same journals also play a role in publishing and distributing the problematic articles we discussed earlier, giving credibility to ableism. Recently published journal articles have:

  • Labeled experiences with disabled students as “frustrating and unsatisfying” (Hewett, 2000, p. 1)
  • Described a visually impaired student as “masterful at manipulating” (Sisk, 2001, p. 7)
  • Associated mental illness with violence and shootings (McDonald, 2008)
  • Warned that when working with a deaf student for the first time, “fear may overtake your ability to read, speak, and think like a writing consultant” (Schmidt, Bunse, Dalton, Perry, & Rau, 2009, p. 9)

It’s troubling to remember that these pieces were approved by multiple reviewers and editors who also didn’t recognize disabled people as an intended audience for writing center work.

Steps Forward [slides 57-60]

Moving forward, writing center organizations can take several steps to reduce ableism. Our journals can actively recruit reviewers and editors with a knowledge of disability, so they can provide assistance and education to those wanting to publish on disability. Disabled editors would also be able to advise on the accessibility of the publication itself and prioritize usability for disabled readers. Disability studies offers some examples:

  • Disability Studies Quarterly (2019) has published its issues in HTML since 2000
  • Jeanne Higbee’s (2003) edited collection, Curriculum Transformation and Disability, is available as a PDF and as Microsoft Word documents
  • Jay T. Dolmage’s (2017) Academic Ableism is available in print and in HTML

CCCCs (2019) and the Composing Access Project (2019) can provide inspiration for planning conferences. Conference organizers at the state and regional levels can form local accessibility committees and seek advice from disabled students, tutors, or community members, as well as their local disability support centers.

At the international level, IWCA can develop a disability committee to advise on the accessibility of our international conference, create accessibility guides for attendees, and host a standing special interest group on disability. A disability committee could also help create a greater online conference presence to mitigate the financial, physical, and mental barriers of onsite conferences. Imagine how more connected disabled professionals might feel if they could participate online or download materials from conferences they couldn’t attend.

Conclusion [slides 61-66]

Let’s return to my earlier question: is our art accessible? If access is a practice, then we can’t answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, this question requires us to consistently find ways to increase focused accessibility and to share this responsibility. Writing center teachers can revise their local pedagogy and incorporate disability into tutor training, while inviting more disabled tutors. Writing center artists and artisans can better consider disability in their scholarship, while inviting more disabled voices into our work. And writing center organizations can ensure more accessible conferences and publications with less problematic work, while inviting more disabled scholars to hold positions of leadership. As Dolmage (2017) explains, “ableism is everywhere. […] we are all responsible for looking for it, recognizing our roles in its circulation, and seeking change” (p. 31).

Suggested Readings [slides 67-72]

Babcock, R. D. (2008). Outlaw tutoring: Editing and proofreading revisited. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 38(2), 63-70.

Babcock, R. D. (2012). Tell me how it reads: Tutoring deaf and hearing students in the writing center. Gallaudet University Press: Washington, DC.

Cobrin, P., & Quinby, S. (2017). Project OWL (Options in Writing and Learning): Exploring attitudinal, programmatic, and physical access for students with disabilities. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 277-304). Fountainhead Press.

Davis, L. J. (Ed.) (2018). Beginning with disability: A primer. Routledge: New York, NY.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Elston, M. M. (2015). Psychological disability and the director’s chair: Interrogating the relationship between positionality and pedagogy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Greoneveld, S. (2011). It begins with a mentality: Disability and the writing center. Another Word.

Higbee, J. L. (Ed.) (2003). Curriculum transformation and disability (CTAD): Implementing Universal Design in higher education. University of Minnesota.

Hitt, A. (2012). Access for all: The role of dis/ability in multiliteracy centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 9(2).

Hitt, A. (2012). #iwca 2.0: The need to diagnose. Accessing Rhetoric.

Hitt, A. (2017). Foreword. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. vii-x). Fountainhead Press.

Kiedaisch, J., & Dinitz, S. (2007). Changing notions of difference in the writing center: The possibilities of Universal Design. The Writing Center Journal, 27(2), 39-59.

Kleinfeld, E. (2018). Taking an expansive view of accessibility: The writing center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Composition Forum, 39.

Konrad, A. (2014). What I’ve learned from working with blind and visually impaired writers. Another Word.

Konrad, A. (2016). Access as a lens for peer tutoring. Another Word.

Lewiecki-Wilson, C., & Brueggemann, B. J. (Eds.) (2008). Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Mucek, S. A. (2017). Identity and disabled tutors: The possibilities of reconstructing selfhood in peer writing conferences. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 105-128). Fountainhead Press.

Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Ryan, H., Miller, G. O., & Steinhart, S. E. (2017). Informed practices: Destabilizing institutional barriers in the writing center. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 257-276). Fountainhead Press.

Yabe, M. (2018). The journey of a deaf translingual writer. Writing on the Edge, 28(2), 73-85.

References [slides 73-81]

Babcock, R. D. (2008a). Outlaw tutoring: Editing and proofreading revisited. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 38(2), 63-70.

Babcock, R. D. (2008b). Tutoring deaf college students in the writing center. In C. Lewiecki-Wilson & B. J. Brueggemann (Eds.), Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook (pp. 28-39). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Babcock, R. D. (2012). Tell me how it reads: Tutoring deaf and hearing students in the writing center. Gallaudet University Press: Washington, DC.

Cantor Fine Art. (2016). Please touch the art .

Composing Access Project. (2019). Composing access: An invitation to creating accessible events.

Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC). (2019). Committee on Disability Issues.

Corrigan, J. (1997). A guide for writing tutors working with dyslexic writers. Writing Lab Newsletter, 21(10), 1-3.

Crook, L. (2019). Thomas Heatherwick designed the Vessel to “bring people together.” dezeen.

Davis, L. J. (2018). Introduction. In L. J. Davis (Ed.), Beginning with disability: A primer (pp. 3-14). Routledge: New York, NY.

Demirgian, A. (2018). The issue with ISSUU: A full-screen reader is not a screen reader.

Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ). (2019). Archives.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Dolmage, J. (2018). Disability rhetoric. In L. J. Davis (Ed.), Beginning with disability: A primer (pp. 28-36). Routledge: New York, NY.

Dupere, K. (2016). 5 innovative ways art is becoming more accessible to the blind community. Mashable.

Faerm, E. (1992). Tutoring Anne: A case study. Writing Lab Newsletter, 16(7), 9-10.

Hewett, B. L. (2000). Helping students with learning disabilities: Collaboration between writing centers and special services. Writing Lab Newsletter, 25(3), 1-5.

Hewett, B. L. (2015). The online writing conference: A guide for teachers and tutors. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, MA.

Higbee, J. L. (Ed.) (2003). Curriculum transformation and disability (CTAD): Implementing Universal Design in higher education. University of Minnesota.

Hitt, A. (2017). Foreword. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. vii-x). Fountainhead Press.

Hollingworth, G. (2008, June 2). Touch not ok [photograph].

Kleinfeld, E. (2018). Taking an expansive view of accessibility: The writing center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Composition Forum, 39.

Lopez, J. (2017). Museum on the move: How LACMA is making art accessible to all. Departures.

McDonald, M. M. (2008). Assessing and responding to clients with severe mental disorders. Writing Lab Newsletter, 32(10), 8-9.

Montero, R. (2019). Meet the digital curator making art accessible to the masses. Forbes.

Mullin, A. E. (1994). Improving our abilities to tutor students with learning disabilities. Writing Lab Newsletter, 19(3), 1-3.

Neff, J. (1994). Learning disabilities and the writing center. In J. A. Mullin & R. Wallace (Eds.), Intersections: Theory-practice in the writing center (pp. 81-95). National Council of Teachers of English: Urbana, IL.

Peguesse, C. L. (2013). Assessing the effectiveness of tutor comments in email sessions. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 44(1), 95-104.

Praxis. (2019). Vintage Praxis.

Price, M. (2009). Access imagined: The construction of disability in conference policy documents. Disability Studies Quarterly, 29(1).

Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Rafoth, B. (2016). Faces, factories, and Warhols: A r(Evolutionary) future for writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 35(2), 17-29.

Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Sara, E. (2019). Fighting the art world’s ableism. Hyperallergic.

Schmidt, K., Bunse, M., Dalton, K., Perry, N., & Rau, K. (2009). Lessening the divide: Strategies for promoting effective communication between hearing consultants and deaf student-writers. Writing Lab Newsletter, 33(5), 6-10.

Schramm, M. J. (1991). Just like Joe. Writing Lab Newsletter, 15(10), 9-10.

sdankwa. (2015). Disability, ableism and the body in art schools. Art.School.Differences.

Shamoon, L. K., & Burns, D. H. (1995). A critique of pure tutoring. The Writing Center Journal, 15(2), 134-151.

Sisk, K. (2001). Assisting the visually impaired in the writing center. Writing Lab Newsletter, 25(7), 6-9.

Society for Disability Studies. (2016). Publishing accessible books.

Urist, J. (2016). A new way to see art: Museum programs for the blind challenge notions of how people connect with great works. The Atlantic.

Writing Lab Newsletter LLC. (2019). WLN archives.

Yabe, M. (2018). The journey of a deaf translingual writer. Writing on the Edge, 28(2), 73-85.

Cite This Presentation

Dembsey, J. M. (2019, October). Art and ableism: An accessibility analysis of writing center pedagogy, conferences, and publications. International Writing Centers Association. Columbus, OH.